Saturday afternoon in Wisborough Green. September sunlight, contentment. Copies of the London Times and the Daily Telegraph rustle in the breeze. The smell of freshly cut grass fills the air. Clumps of Brits spread quilts, ground cloths and numerous offspring strategically on this dung-dotted pasture, claiming territory like colonialists dividing a distant continent.
The drowsy languor is shattered by a racket. Smoke and dust billow across the field as dozens of men in crash helmets yank on lawn mower starter ropes. The whine from the Westwoods and the Ransomes and the Qualcasts settles down to a stuttering rhythm, revs up again, then stops completely while five or six men align their mowers between bales of hay.
The union jack is dropped, and with a cry of "Gentlemen, start your mowers!" the 19th Annual World Championships of Lawn Mower Racing is under way.
For the rest of the day, dozens of blade runners bounce around the rutted track in 10-minute heats. Bruised and battered, sleek and stripped for action, the mowers battle head-on for lawn supremacy. The brain-rattling cacophony peaks in the cross-country event—six miles of bumping, thumping chaos.
"The idea is to provide keen, well-organized and inexpensive motor sport in a daft sort of way," says Jim Gavin, general secretary of the British Lawn Mower Racing Association (BLMRA). Sanctioned by Britain's prestigious Royal Automobile Club, the BLMRA has held mowing events every summer since 1973, including several in France. Membership hovers around 200, depending on who has paid the annual $9 dues. "We're not attempting to cut grass or set standards for cutting grass," Gavin says. Speed, rather than mowing ability, is the criterion for success.
Britain, of course, is exceedingly conscious of class, and the sport of lawn mower racing has three: run-behinds, sit-behinds and sit-upons—the last are the little tractors Gavin calls "the Rolls-Royces of this most English of sports." An amiable Irishman with fine white hair, Gavin has the bluff, ruddy, round-faced ingenuousness of a character actor in a British film about murder in a rectory. "Over here," he says, "competing is more important than winning. And what you compete in is not particularly important."
Mowmen, he says, tend to be rugged individualists. "We don't attract bank clerks or schoolteachers or anyone who works in the civil service," he says. "Our members are plumbers, mechanics, doctors, lawyers, pilots—people who see it as a curious challenge and dive in." Gavin owns four mowers himself, most notably a 1923 Atco. But he never races them. "It's too bloody painful," he explains. Sit-behinds have very little suspension. Sit-upons, none. And run-behinds? "It helps if you're a masochist," says Gavin, who puts out Cuttings, the BLMRA's "reasonably regular" newsletter.
"You might want to write this down so that it'll alleviate the whole condition," says Gavin, with the authority of a pharmacist advising an antacid. "The driving force behind mower racing was boredom." One evening in 1973, Gavin and his drinking buddies had been moaning in a West Sussex pub, the Cricketer's Arms in Wisborough Green, about the commercialization of auto racing. A former rally driver, Gavin was hot from officiating the trans-Sahara rally. He gazed wistfully around him and saw not sand but green fields.
Someone said, "What about lawn mowers?"
"You're right," said Gavin. "Everyone in Britain has one."
And so the BLMRA was born. But what's an association without a motto. Gavin suggested Sic biscuitis disintegrat (roughly, "That's the way the cookie crumbles"). "But it didn't convey the right image," he says. The barflies eventually settled on Per herbam ad astra (Through the grass to the stars). "It invoked everything spiritual in lawns," Gavin says.
That night Gavin hung a sign on a wall of the Cricketer's Arms: BRITISH GRAND PRIX FOR LAWN MOWERS IN MURPHY'S FIELD. INQUIRIES HERE. He was back in the pub with the boys the following evening when he heard the now familiar sputter. "I looked out the window and saw a guy running a mower back and forth, full out," Gavin says. "I thought, Holy god! What have we started here?"
The six events at that first grand prix ranged from a mower relay to a three-legged mower race. In the jousting competition, mounted mower knights brandished bamboo poles fitted with boxing gloves. "That went over like a sack of manure," says Ian Saunders, proprietor of the Cricketer's Arms. The tug-of-war was more popular though more perilous. Six machines in tandem tugged from each side. "Unfortunately, the rope stretched across a red-hot cylinder head," Gavin recalls. "Suddenly, boom! The mowers shot out this way and that. Why we didn't kill half the population, I don't know."
The sought-after prix were cucumbers. "First place got one cucumber," says Gavin. "Second place, two." Even today the BLMRA offers no cash prizes: Trophies at the '91 world championships included a busted crankcase, an old teapot and a chrome-plated mower blade in a glass case; typically, prizes for this year's tournament (Sept. 19-20) have yet to be determined.
Commercialism is definitely not in the spirit of the sport's regulations. Lawn mower racers would rather cut grass—which is also never done in competition. For safety's sake, machines are divested of their blades. "I know it sounds ridiculous," says Gavin. "It's like gelding all the colts in the Kentucky Derby."
For a sport in which speeds approach 50 mph, lawn mower racing has an enviable casualty record. The only serious mishap occurred in 1978 when a runaway machine careered into a portable toilet. "It frightened the life out of the lady who was in there," says Gavin. "She fled screaming into the night, trailing a kind of blue chemical liquid. It was not a pretty sight." A competitor is now required to wire his body with an ignition cut-off switch; if he's thrown, the engine stops.
Rules are many and strictly enforced. Alterations can be made to the gearing, but the engine can't be tinkered with. And you may enter only machines designed for home lawns. "Not public parks or the rolling foothills of the Canadian prairies or the steppes of Russia," Gavin says with scrupulous and impeccable seriousness.
One or two nonsporting types have tried to infiltrate the sport with soupedup machines that looked like everyday lawn mowers. One cutup installed a motorcycle engine. He was banned for life. Another tried to juice his mower with methanol. Banned, too. Mutant mowers abounded at a race in Limoges, France, in 1990. One Frenchman cannibalized the bodies of two Citroen 2CVs and bolted a grass catcher to the grill. "We were scared to death that those mammoth French machines would overturn and mow us down," says Gavin. A compromise was reached: The French agreed to race separately in a new class called "super prototypes."
The 12-hour Endurance Classic, also known as Le Lawn, is held in August in Wisborough Green and is the sport's best-known event. Best-known, that is, despite the fact that publicity is pretty much discouraged. Legendary Formula One driver Stirling Moss was allowed into the 1977 classic only if he promised not to tell anyone he would be competing. Lead-footing a Templar Tiller sit-upon, Moss teamed with five-time Le Mans winner Derek Bell to capture the title two years running.
The 12-hour has the merry air of a convocation of Druids at Stonehenge. Ungenteel pleasures await the 2,000 or so mower buffs in attendance. They bring beach chairs and beach umbrellas and hampers full of comestibles, or they eat burgers and chips from stands set up for Brinsbury Agricultural College's handicapped-student fund, the charity designated as the primary beneficiary of all this activity.
The nightlong gala begins with the customary parade: Scores of mowers—some from as far away as Zimbabwe and Hong Kong—slowly lap the course, headlights blazing. This year the long night ended in a victory for Team Gilliams (the sit-upon class), which beat out the Whipper Snappers, the Weed Killers and the Mayhem Mowers, among others.
"When the 12-hour ends, no spectator, official or competitor wants to see or smell or touch a mower," says Gavin. "Nobody gives a damn what happens to their lawn for the next week."
Mow or less.